As people spend much of their lives indoors there is a clear need to maintain a healthy indoor environment. In addition to ourselves, pets and plants, the buildings we live and work in house a diverse community of microscopic organisms (microbes such as bacteria, fungi, protists and viruses). Exposure to indoor microbes is an important feature of our health, for example as pathogens or release of allergens. The team led by Phill Watts and Lucy Davies is researching how changes in climate and building design may affect the community of indoor microbes.

Samples of indoor air (‘household dust’) represent the typical nexus between the indoor microbiota and occupant health. As household dust is dominated by particles shed by inhabitants (skin from people and pets) and material brought in by the occupants or via airflow, it is perhaps unsurprising that the composition of indoor microbiota appears to be largely independent of the type of surface material from which samples were collected but reflect the characteristics of the buildings’ inhabitants (e.g. indoor bacteria) or the external environment (indoor fungi).

By focusing on dust, however, most studies of indoor microbiota overlook the communities of microbes that lie within building structures.

It is the microbiota of the building structures that determines where deep rooted problems and significant structural damage can occur.

With this in mind, researchers are particularly keen to look beyond household dust and quantify the microbiota that colonised the spaces within and between building structures during construction.

Researchers tested microbial growth on materials under varying weather conditions

Lucy Davies, Milla Rajala and Suvi Shemeikka are using a combination of molecular-genetic and culturing-based methods to quantify the communities of microbes associated with different insulation materials, such as wood, recycled fibres and glass wool, etc.

A need to studying the microbiota of building materials themselves is reinforced by the demand to construct buildings that are more energy efficient, which is typically achieved through the use of novel materials and/or reducing airflow.

This change in building materials and/or design can alter the hygrothermal (moisture content and temperature) conditions of the building and thus the species of microbes present.

The team also exposed building materials to the environment for several days (to mimic the exposure of materials to environmental microbes that occurs during construction) and are examining the extent to which these materials differ in their tendency to promote or retard certain species of microbe.

Climate chambers will be used also to determine the possible impacts of future climate scenarios on the microbiota of different building materials.

By maintaining samples of building materials in microcosms in climate chambers we can quantify the effect of specific weather conditions (e.g. spring, summer) on microbial growth for each material.

We aim to use this information about the ‘building microbiota’ in combination with data on the hygrothermal conditions associated with each building material, data that are acquired by our consortium partners Dr Antti Haapala, Dr Aitor Barbero-LopezVeli-Matti Lähteenmäki at University of Eastern Finland, and Dr Filip Fedorik, University of Oulu, with the aim of better predicting the risk of microbial growth associated with the use of novel building materials and in a changing climate.

The Finnish Academy is funding the project ‘Effect of climate change on building design and indoor health’. More information about evolutionary genomics research at the University of Jyväskylä.


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